Space heater fires
What are space heaters?
Space heaters are fixed or portable heaters in a room. This
includes open coal, wood or coke fires, gas fires, portable gas
fires (LPG heaters), electric fires and heaters, and oil and
What are the main causes of heating appliance fires?
Space heaters regularly cause fatalities in the home. Most accidents
are caused by people's behaviour rather than technical faults
in the appliances themselves. For example, standing or sitting
too close to the heater, allowing clothing or other items to
come too close, or leaving heaters on overnight can all cause
Who is most at risk?
Those in the age ranges 0-4 years and 70 years and over have
the highest risk. Women over 70 are most at risk, as there are
more women than men in this higher age group. Men are more at
risk in the 30-69 age range, which may be because they are more
likely to be impaired by drink or drugs at this age, or because
they are more likely to tackle a fire on their own.
People living alone, those living in terraced houses and houses
in multiple occupation, or in rented accommodation, and those
on low incomes all tend to be at greater risk.
Where do most accidents occur?
The living room is the area of the home where accidents most
often occur. Many older people migrate to one room because of
the cold or disability, bringing with them more and more possessions.
It is also less likely that there is a smoke detector in the
Which kinds of heating appliance carry the greatest
Electric space heaters are involved in the most incidents and
the most deaths and injuries. Gas, solid fuel and LPG (liquid
petroleum gas) space heaters are also significant contributors.
Oil and paraffin heaters carry a high risk but their use has
fallen considerably over the last 20 years.
In 1997 there were 4,195 incidents, 47 deaths _and 820 non-fatal
injuries involving space heater fires. The risk of fatality is
high at 11 per 1,000 incidents, and the risk of injury is 195
per 1,000 incidents.
Behaviour involved in fatal space heater fire incidents
Risk of incident, fatality or non-fatal casualty, 1994-1997
|Risk per million
|Gas space heaters
|Total heating appliances*
* assumes 100 per cent of 23.5 million households
have some form of heating
Good practice guidelines
Safe use of electric heating
There are different kinds of electrical heaters. In all cases:
- Make sure they are well clear of curtains and furnishings.
- Take care with time-switched heaters.
- Never sit too close to a heater - you could easily set light
to your clothes or your chair, particularly if you fall asleep.
Sit at least 1 metre (3 feet) away.
- Keep a permanent safety guard around radiant fires.
- If you have children around, also keep a fireguard in front
of the fire. Always use fireguards which meet the British Standard
- Do not put clothes or other items on or near the fireguard.
- In small rooms, radiant fires should be fixed high on the
wall - at least 1 metre (3 feet) from any furniture, curtains
or doors (open or closed).
- Switch off the fire at the wall socket, unplug it and let
it cool before cleaning it.
- Never fit time switches and delay controls to radiant fires.
- Never drape anything over a convector or storage heater.
- Make sure that airing cupboard heaters are shielded against
falling clothes, and that they have an overheat cut-out and
an indicator lamp.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions for positioning heaters
- Keep heaters at least 8 centimetres (3 inches) clear of curtains
- Never obstruct air grilles.
- Fan heaters:
- Never cover or obstruct air grilles.
If you notice any of these danger signs, stop using
the appliance immediately:
- Staining, sooting or discoloration of the appliance or surrounding
- A gas heater or boiler burning with a yellow or orange flame
rather than its normal blue flame.
- A strange smell when the appliance is working
Safe use of gas fires
Gas appliances operate safely when they are installed, operated
and maintained correctly.
- It is best only to buy appliances from reputable dealers.
Make sure they meet the appropriate British or European safety
- Avoid buying second-hand appliances if you can. If you do
buy second-hand, choose appliances that have been tested for
safety. Insist on a written guarantee from the dealer and a
copy of the user instructions. Never install or reconnect a
gas appliance yourself.
- By law, gas appliances must be fitted and maintained only
by an installer who is registered with CORGI (Council for Registered
Gas Installers). If the appliance is fitted to an existing
chimney, this should first be swept.
- Any newly installed appliance in a bathroom must be of the
- When installing a gas fire of 14 kilowatts input or less
in a bedroom it must either have a spillage safety device or
be room-sealed. If it is larger than 14 kilowatts input it
must be room-sealed.
- Have all your gas appliances serviced regularly by a CORGI-registered
installer - once a year for gas fires and boilers. Ensure this
includes a safety check to make sure flues are working properly.
- Ventilation is vital. All fuel uses up fresh
air as it burns and gives off waste gases. Gas appliances need
fresh air to burn properly. Never block or obstruct
any vent. If your appliances are fitted with balanced
flues, make sure the grille outside is kept clear. Where appliances
require flues, removal of waste gases is essential.
If you smell gas:
- Turn off the gas supply at the meter.
- Do not use matches or naked flames.
- Do not turn electrical switches on or off.
- Open doors and windows.
- Check the appliance to see if the gas has been left switched
- Do not smoke.
- Call the gas supply company or the emergency service provider
It is against the law to use an appliance you know or suspect
is unsafe or dangerous.
Safe use of portable gas heaters
Cylinder gas (liquefied petroleum gas/LPG) is used to fuel
powerful domestic heaters in houses, boats, caravans and
mobile homes. Portable heaters do not need flues but they
do need a lot of air. They should not be used in confined
spaces with poor air circulation.
All new portable cabinet heaters made to British Standards
BS 5258 Parts 10, 11 and BS EN449 are fitted with a special
safety device that cuts off the gas supply if the room
gets too stuffy. Other portable heaters, designed for outdoor
activities, have no such device and must not be used in
- Choose an appliance that meets the British or European
- Avoid buying second-hand.
- Get a CORGI-registered installer to install and check
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Have your appliances regularly serviced by an engineer
who is registered with CORGI.
- Make sure there is enough air coming into the room
- by not blocking or obstructing vents.
- Keep portable heaters clear of furniture, bedclothes
- Do not use a portable heater for drying clothes.
Changing gas cylinders:
- Do it in the open air. If this is not possible, open
windows and doors to increase ventilation.
- Never change the cylinder on a stairway or other escape
- Extinguish all sources of ignition such as cigarettes
and pilot lights. If you are indoors, turn off other
heaters and electrical appliances.
- Make sure the valve on the empty cylinder is closed
before disconnecting the heater. Do not open the valve
on the new cylinder until the connection to the heater
- Look for any gas leaks by brushing soapy water onto
the flexible hose and fittings and looking for bubbles.
If you find a leak, take the heater and cylinder into
the open air, and do not use either until the faulty
part is replaced.
- Store spare cylinders upright, and outside wherever
possible. Never store them in basements, near drains,
under the stairs or in a cupboard containing electricity
meters or electrical equipment.
- Place heaters where they will not be knocked or tripped
over. Do not put them where objects will fall on them.
- Make sure heaters are well clear of curtains, furniture
- Do not move a heater while it is alight and switched
Safe use of paraffin heaters
Paraffin heaters are safe
when used properly and sensibly.
- Choose a new heater that meets British or European safety
standards. Wherever possible avoid buying second-hand.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
- Never refill with paraffin while the heater is alight.
- Make sure there is plenty of air coming into the room.
- Keep heaters away from doors and direct draughts.
- Check all parts regularly and remove any build-up of dust,
which could restrict the air flow.
- Check regularly to make sure the wick has not become choked
or dirty. When necessary, trim it with the special wick cleaner
provided. If you do not have one, ask at the shop where you
buy your wicks.
- When buying paraffin, look for the special symbol with the
number BS 2869 CI on the pump or tank. Using this paraffin
will help to ensure that your heater works safely.
When refilling the heater:
- Extinguish the heater and let it cool first.
- Where possible, refill the tank outside.
- Refill to just below the maximum level, to allow for expansion
when the paraffin warms up.
- Never allow the paraffin to overflow or drip onto the floor
- clear up any spills immediately.
- Before lighting, make sure the heater is standing level,
preferably on a non-combustible base, and away from draughts.
- Store spare fuel outside the home, and try not to store more
than 9 litres (2 gallons). Keep the fuel in purpose-made containers
away from sources of heat.
Oil-fired heaters with chimneys or flues need air to allow them
to work properly. Make sure that air can enter the room.
Safe use of oil-fired heaters
- Get a reputable company to install your oil-fired heater
- Read and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Get your appliance serviced regularly by an experienced engineer.
This should include a safety check to make sure that chimneys
and flues are not blocked.
- Do not try to adjust gauges and instruments yourself.
Safe use of wood-burning stoves and boiler
- Wood-burning stoves and boilers should only use the right
quality of wood. They need to be properly maintained and regularly
- Get a competent person to install the stove or boiler, following
the manufacturer's instructions and the building regulations
and code of practice.
- Make sure there is enough air coming into the room.
- The wood should be dry and well-seasoned - this usually takes
about two years. A well-seasoned log has drying-out splits
in the ends. Never use wet or newly-felled wood as this can
cause tar or creosote to form in the wood burner and chimney.
- If the wood burner has been used slowly (overnight, for instance),
this should be followed by a period of faster burning to dry
out any creosote and to warm up the chimney again.
- Get the chimney cleaned at the end of each heating season
and at least once during the heating season. Get it inspected